Ariel G. Ruiz Soto likes to keep people honest. So when he received a letter, just days before Thanksgiving, informing him that his application for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) had been approved, he knew exactly what he was going to do.

“I can’t tell you how many people have told me, ‘If only we could hire you, we would’,” he says. “Well, tomorrow I’m going to show up with my card and say, ‘Remember what you said? Let’s talk about that.’”

Cindy Agustín speaks on a panel about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) at the University of Chicago, Nov. 13. Agustín explained efforts to inform people about what DACA is and isn’t, and what the application process entails.

Ruiz Soto was born in Morelia, Mexico, and lived there for 10 years before moving to Walla Walla, Washington. He is intelligent and assertive, traits that have served him well in his studies and in facing the even trickier issue of life after school. As an undocumented student, “I’ve had to change my plans a lot,” he says.

The barriers Ruiz Soto has encountered are not uncommon. Financial aid, job opportunities and school-based support systems to aid in navigating post-school life can be lacking for undocumented individuals. But Ruiz Soto says he is different from many of these students in some respects. He has never been afraid of his status, and he knows how to take charge, talk to people and get them to understand where he’s coming from. And he’s using his self-proclaimed “cultural capital” to make immigration reform a priority on his college campuses.

But immigration policy is at a pivotal point as demands for reform grow more urgent. A recent New York Times story reported on a dramatic change in direction taken by the United We Dream network of undocumented youth that has the group shifting away from advocating for citizenship for young people to mobilizing for passage of a bill to legalize the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The shifting circumstances call for far more systematized efforts on the part of universities in addressing what comes after college – efforts that will require unprecedented levels of creativity, advocacy and collaboration.In pursuing their interests at the college level, undocumented students continue to demonstrate how much they have to offer, according to Fermin Mendoza, whose report for Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC) makes the case for additional financial support for undocumented students. Many have overcome language barriers, cultural transition or additional responsibilities outside of school in order to continue their studies. But once accepted, they may find an entirely new landscape to navigate. In college, an undocumented student’s future may seem even less clear, the community less accommodating and the resources scarcer. Especially with the passage of DACA, which has opened up new, though temporary, doors to legally working in the U.S., it has become increasingly clear that universities must step up their efforts to help undocumented students navigate a shifting post-school landscape.

Preparing for the post-school leap

One of the first questions to be addressed is the same one every other undergraduate student in the world faces: What happens after school? For undocumented students, this question comes with a unique set of additional concerns, and even graduate school can pose problems.

After graduating from Whitman College, a small liberal arts school in Walla Walla, Ruiz Soto applied to graduate school, intending to get his PhD. Not only did it fit with his interest in education and academics, it was an ideal financial option as universities offer excellent financial aid to PhD students. The problem for Ruiz Soto was that PhD students teach, and because of that, need to be employees of their universities. Since Ruiz Soto has no social security number, the universities could not hire him.

So he changed plans. He is now working toward a Master’s degree in social service administration at the University of Chicago, supporting the substantially more expensive tuition with multiple scholarships and work outside of school.

Rocio Castaneda of the Immigrants’ Rights Coalition at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Law, points out that similar obstacles exist for other concentrations. As a law student, she says she doesn’t know any undocumented students at the university. “Who afraid of their status would go to law school?” she says. “If you take the bar test, there’s a very strict background check. Undocumented students could go to law school, but they probably wouldn’t be able to practice.”

There are two ongoing cases, in Florida and California, that seek to determine whether or not undocumented lawyers will be able to gain admission to each state’s bar organization. A national organization – The DREAM Bar Association (DBA) – has been set up specifically in response to this barrier. The DBA focuses on advocacy, litigation and providing legal services, career services and a sense of community for members, who can be anyone from undocumented youth interested in becoming lawyers to undocumented law school graduates.

Other obstacles simply require taking matters into one’s own hands. Maria Guzman, a senior researcher at

Attendees of UCCIR’s November DACA panel converse before the event. Of the concerns of undocumented students, Elly Daugherty of the University of Chicago said, ” We’re going to keep talking about it with our students, and I know this is a question that is going to continue to be provoked by organizations that are here today.”

Loyola University who works on campus immigration initiatives,  says that Loyola engineering and nursing students who must complete an internship to graduate may have one less avenue to know their opportunities, as career services requires a social security number. However, the unpaid nature of some internships affords more opportunities for students who will take the initiative to approach employers themselves, without the need for paperwork.

For Laura Bohórquez, a graduate student in Loyola’s student diversity and multicultural affairs officewho is currently spearheading an undocumented student initiative, much of the solution to unpaid career opportunities like this comes down to wording. “What we would like to happen is, if you don’t need a social security number, you don’t ask for it,” she says.

Things become more complicated when it comes to paid employment, however. Undocumented students in higher education have the same concerns as every other student in determining their career path, but with the added concern that they may not be able to find a job that acknowledges their advanced degree.

Deborah Capiro, a member of the University of Chicago Coalition for Immigrant Rights (UCCIR), says difficulties getting internships and jobs can take a toll on undocumented students. “That’s an integral part of the college experience,” she says. “Seeing others doing that and not being able to do it yourself reinforces this feeling of isolation. It’s already extremely hard to get into college for these students, and it could just seem like once you’re here it doesn’t get much better.” That stress is only aggravated when undocumented students are given smaller packages of financial aid or charged higher admission because they do not qualify for in-state tuition, for example.

With that in mind, those focusing on supporting undocumented students have chosen to focus many of their efforts on navigating paid internship and employment opportunities. And Bohórquez maintains that a little creativity yields more options than many would assume.

“One of the things I’ve always pushed is community engagement. It’s all about networking,” Bohórquez says. “There are lots of great opportunities with non-profits. They’re very receptive to helping undocumented students.” Often, non-profits will take on undocumented students as interns, leading to employment after graduation. They’ll also work to find grants so they can pay students who do not have a social security number.

Andrea Rosales from the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) speaks on a panel about DACA at the University of Chicago. Rosales herself is a DACA applicant and a graduate of the University of Illinois.

But there is another crucial piece of the puzzle: starting a conversation not just between campuses but also within each campus. This can be in many ways a more daunting task, but making immigration issues a priority on college campuses is a key step in achieving a more supportive atmosphere and more robust resources for undocumented students, according to a guide to Illinois colleges for undocumented students, compiled by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) and E4FC.Meanwhile, students and universities must work together to make change of their own. Ruiz Soto emphasizes that in such a university-dense city as Chicago, collaboration among campuses needs to happen. He and Guzman both suggest a regional committee where schools can come together and discuss solutions for undocumented students.

Starting a conversation, taking action

When Ruiz Soto began his undergraduate education at the University of Washington in Seattle, financial problems drove him to return home and take a year off before attending Whitman. This would turn out to be a positive move as Ruiz Soto found a campus that was exceptionally receptive to his ideas about undocumented student support. “I went in there and changed quite a few things. [The administration and counselors] were creative in finding solutions,” he says. “The goal was that I shouldn’t be worrying about my status. I should worry about my grades.”

The school provided funding so that he and other undocumented students could present at conferences like the Pacific Sociological Association’s annual gathering. They provided flexible scholarship options to make up for lack of federal aid. They set aside money to hold campus-wide events that would recognize and validate the contributions of undocumented students. “People came up to me—professors, students—and said, ‘I didn’t know what undocumented was, or that we had undocumented students here.’ You’d be surprised, even at privileged universities, how much ignorance there is,” Ruiz Soto says. “But at Whitman they were so receptive. Not only did they listen to me and get it, they wanted to do something about it.”

Ruiz Soto says that Whitman was ahead of the curve in this respect. An environment in which undocumented students feel comfortable with their status remains a goal rather than a reality at many campuses. In fact, many students express concerns that undocumented students don’t feel comfortable self-identifying in their community.

“We only get the stories of the courageous ones, the forerunners for undocumented issues,” Cynthia de la Rosa, a member of UCCIR, says. “If you’re already in a situation where you feel unsafe revealing your status, you’ll be hesitant to seek out help for yourself.”

Maria Guzman of the Center for Urban Research & Learning at Loyola has been working as part of a Ford Foundation-funded research study for the past two years, in collaboration with Fairfield University and Santa Clara University, hoping to reach a more complete understanding of these students’ experiences. Guzman and her colleagues interviewed undocumented students at 28 Jesuit universities in the United States, seeking their perspectives and best practices for supporting these students. The study, she says, reinforces the harmful psychological impacts undocumented students may experience as a result of stress or isolation, as well as a crucial need for discussion of immigration issues on campus. Guzman says that a more informed and accepting campus environment can help relieve that burden.

“Some of the best practices we found spread knowledge and talked about formalizing practices that are still under the ground right now,” she says. “For undocumented students, they’re trying to be a college student and having all of this to handle, but it can be dealt with by making people aware and making people feel more comfortable.”

Availability of support is crucial to this goal. Undocumented students are tasked with working around additional limitations and seeking additional resources, often in a system that is just starting to understand their needs. But a system that makes resources and counseling available for all students would be helpful even to those who don’t feel comfortable telling others they are undocumented. With that in mind, Bohórquez and her colleagues at Loyola University’s student diversity and multicultural affairs office developed the initiative to support these students and rework the campus’s undocumented student policies.

For the past year and a half, Bohórquez and Guzman have devoted much of their time to starting a campus conversation on immigration policy. With the goal of developing campus allies for undocumented students, they hold workshops for Loyola administrators and faculty, educating them about immigration issues and history. They hope to make these training sessions available to students as well.

“We really want to raise awareness and visibility,” Bohórquez says. “We saw that people were talking about immigration issues, teaching it in little pockets, but no one was talking to each other. I think the conversation is starting now.”

Bohórquez hopes that at Loyola this will address issues as simple as dispelling students and faculty of common misconceptions. She and others point to several commonly held ideasthat are simply ignorant: for example, that they are all Latino or Spanish-speaking. Many also still use terms such as “illegal” or “aliens,” words whose negative connotations are hurtful to undocumented immigrants and only further promote feelings of isolation. Guzman says that many of the people she spoke with said they wanted to help students but thought they would get in trouble for doing so. Others weren’t even aware that undocumented students could be admitted to college.

Elly Daugherty, Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Associate Dean of the College at University of Chicago, speaks at UCCIR’s DACA event Nov. 13. ” We’re finding our voice with a profound obligation to students who are here and we are to insure their success,” she said. “That’s a responsibility that we all have.”

Because of this, their initiatives have focused on helping administrators feel more comfortable talking about undocumented issues. When Bohórquez spoke with them at the beginning of her efforts, many told her they simply didn’t know enough and didn’t want to sound ignorant, or didn’t feel it was their job to help undocumented students. But among those working with immigration issues on college campuses, there is agreement that the entire campus must invest in supporting undocumented students. And as Ruiz Soto says, that doesn’t just mean understanding immigration issues; it means actively working with undocumented students and putting as much effort as possible into supporting their future aspirations.

As Guzman found in her research, much of the support for undocumented students is still very informal. This is true for many other area universities. Tamara Felden is the director of the Office of International Affairs at the University of Chicago, but she is also the unofficial point person for undocumented students seeking support, as well as a close advisor to UCCIR.

Felden feels that her office has the legal expertise and access to resources to be useful for students, and having worked for 10 years at the University of Chicago, she has a deep understanding of “how one can get things done at a complex organization.” And she is keeping with goals to get the whole campus involved by connecting with allies in each school of the university.

“Undocumented students as a population have become more visible. This is a topic that’s a part of this institution and it is not going away,” Felden says. “So our policies will become more friendly to gear toward them.”

Meanwhile, Guzman hopes her study, which is to be released in Feb. 2013, will encourage more people to get involved – and more universities to take concrete action to help all of their students. “I think it will bring light to things we already know. It’s not anything off the wall, but it’s a very specific way of working with these students,” she says. “Hopefully people will become more interested in learning about the issues, and putting together formal processes.”

Hopeful but not yet satisfied

While those systems are still in the works, today’s undocumented college students continue to navigate school and post-school life, with varying degrees of campus support.

Guzman says many students she spoke with voiced frustrations, but not discouragement. “Some people said, ‘Why am I working so hard now if I’m not going to be able to get a job in my field?’ But when I asked them to say what advice they would give to someone in a similar place, who is still in high school, they said, ‘Keep working hard, it will pay off eventually.’ They thought, ‘At least I have a diploma, and no one can take that away from me.’”

Two attendees watch the University of Chicago Coalition for Immigrant Rights’ DACA panel on Nov. 13. The panel featured speakers from the Immigrant Youth Justice League and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, among others.

“I think for students it’s like a band-aid relief,” she says. “They have their work permits they’ll have to renew, and they won’t be afraid of being deported, but they still have family members to worry about. The uncertainty is still there.”DACA is “hugely helpful,” Guzman says, but it also requires an entirely new set of resources, from the $465 fee to seek deferred action to legal assistance and all of the correct documents. She voices the sentiment of many when she says that though positive, DACA is only a temporary fix.

While his work permit is certainly a boost, Ruiz Soto says he sees DACA as an incomplete process, just one step on the way to comprehensive immigration reform. Still, “a step forward for undocumented students does not end after DACA,” Ruiz Soto says. “On the contrary, being able to enter the labor market is a stepping stone to advocate and fight for the rights and equality of others.”

Susan Gzesh, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago, says that DACA applicants can call for reform by “[coming] out in big numbers. This is an issue that can get people easily sympathetic because you have such sympathetic, hard-working, smart people working the so-called American dream by going to universities, working what looks like social mobility. But it’s really a complicated path to get anything beyond temporary relief for this group.” Gzesh emphasizes power in numbers when it comes to asking for change where it matters, in Congress.

Ruiz Soto remains adamant that students hesitant to apply for DACA take the plunge, not only for themselves but also for the national immigration reform movement. “When I was approved, I recognized that it was a manifestation of the contributions that my friends, family, and community have invested in me,” he says. “To put it simply, it was not my victory, but our victory. Now it is time to continue to fight for them, to change the national perspective around the needs and contributions of all immigrants.”

He continues the fight by focusing on deep engagement with his campus and community. Ruiz Soto is involved in several organizations, from the student government to ICIRR, and he hopes to bring change on a broader level.

“My dream is to work in Congress, in the budget committee,” he says. “I want to oversee immigration policy, try to qualify laws, see how many people would benefit.”

Until then, he’s taking things a year or two at a time.

“Believe me, I’m going to reapply as many times as I can, but I want immigration reform to happen before the next two years are up. I want to be on the path to citizenship.”